Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What Is An Insight?

Simon Law wrote one of the definitive presentations on "Insights" back in 2006.  In it he defines "insight" as, "A revelation that produces great work, (there should be a degree of, “Fuck me. I never thought of it like that!”)

While I agree with most of what Simon writes, I have a bit of an issue with Simon's premise that many ads are not built on insights but are simply "great product facts" or "bold claims, beautifully written" or "really compelling product nuggets" or "ads with an observation, but not an insight."

The conceit seems to be that an ad based on an "insight" is good while one based on an "idea" is simply a crafty execution or singular turn of speech.  Further, inherent in this notion is that wink, wink, nudge, nudge, only account planners can really uncover insights.

In my mind, all good ads are built on insights. Some of those insights aren't very insightful and perhaps we can scale insights from simple facts to deep revelations, but there's always some insight. (Okay, I admit that some ads are obtuse, asinine, and tasteless.  And many local market ads and late night spot cable ads are terrible.  But those are of the insightless variety.  We're talking here of good ads.)

Sometimes those insights are contained in the creative brief, sometimes they come from the creative briefing, sometimes from the informal discussions that occur daily between team members. At times they are born straight out a creative director's brain. And sometimes they come out of mistakes, curiosity and sheer determination.

One of my favorite examples of the latter comes from Chiat/GMO's launch of Kia automotive in the U.S. in 1994. When Kia decided to enter the U.S. marketplace, it faced what many industry observers considered to be insurmountable challenges. The car industry was viewed with suspicion and seen as lacking in honesty (remember, Saturn was launched during this period). The market was already crowded with numerous established players and Americans distrusted Korean-made cars, partially due to the rapid success and just as rapid failure of Hyundai. In that atmosphere, the GMO team created various positionings only to see them fail in focus group testing.

However, a curious planner visiting Kia’s Korean headquarters stumbled upon some test track results. The results were in Korean, but they included the recognizable names "Toyota Corolla" and "Honda Civic." The planner asked what these were and the response was that Kia used the Corolla and Civic as a baseline against which to compare the Kia Sephia on a number of industry standards. When further asked how the Sephia compared, the reply was that it matched the other two cars on most variables and even did a bit better on a few others. Thus was born the framework for most of our ads: we showed 100,000-mile “real world” test comparisons using the Corolla and Civic. The Sephia was shown literally following the other cars around (like a little brother tagging along):

I find that most insights come from the constant noodling around that that occurs between the time a client briefs the agency and the ad is finally produced. There is a sort of pulsing that occurs where the team gets together and hashes out initial ideas and then individuals go off to think and noodle around. The planner produces the brief, the team gets back together for the briefing, hashes out some more thoughts and then again the team disperses to think and noodle some more. This convergence and divergence continues as initial creative ideas are presented to the team, feedback is given, and  everyone pulses apart to noodle again and again until the ads are finally presented to the client. This pulsing and noodling are where insights are created, evolve, thrown out, and rebuilt until what Jeremy Bullmore calls a "high potency insight" emerges.

Apple calls its version of this pulsing, "Paired Design Meetings": Every week, the design teams have two meetings. One in which to brainstorm, to forget about constraints and think freely. As Michael Lopp, senior engineering manager at Apple, puts it: to "go crazy". Then they also hold a production meeting, an entirely separate but equally regular meeting which is the other's antithesis. Here, the designers and engineers are required to nail everything down, to work out how this crazy idea might actually work. This process and organization continues throughout the development of any product, though of course the balance shifts from blue sky to concrete as the idea progresses.

This noodling or "go crazy" time is essential. Paul Arden, the Saatchi CD who created the British Airways ad that Simon claims contains nary an insight, says, "The trick is to learn to play. You have to muck about. You have to have fun and be silly. That leads you to something fresh. For me it's about having a bit of fun and not always being too serious."

ECD Guy Bommarito puts it this way, "Creativity is about discovery. Discovery is about playing around with a random listing of pretty much anything and stumbling upon a connection that, had you thought about it, simply would not have made sense....It is not about how hard you work. It’s about how well you play. It’s not about how many hours you put in on a project. It’s about how many random thoughts you put down on a piece of paper."

I recently worked on the USAA account with Guy.  USAA is a diversified insurance and financial services company that serves the military and their families. Below are examples of two projects we worked on.  In each case, there was an insight that drove the ad.  In the first, the creative execution took a bold jump off the initial insight and required a lot of pulsing and noodling amongst the team.  There was an insight, but it was Guy's elegant writing that raised the insight to "high potency."  In the second example, the creative execution started from a relatively "high-potency" insight and didn't need as much pulsing from the team. (In both examples there was a client briefing, a creative brief and a creative briefing that started off the project.)

Project 1: The initial insight that drove the noodling: the target's relationship with the entire category is driven by inertia:
  • They are apathetic: "All financial service products are the same, why should I pay attention to any ad?"; and
  • They are desensitized: "Financial service companies constantly send me stuff, why should I read this particular piece?" 
Because of this inertia we felt that we needed to jolt the target with unexpected messages. Hence this ad, whose headline is sort of a paraprosdokian sentence, (a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part).

Project 2:  USAA works with many affinity groups. The initial insight that drove the noodling: the need to recognize each affinity's differences, emulate their values, connect with their community and explain USAA's benefits in a manner that is consistent with each affinity. In the case of the US Naval Institute (USNI), the key connection is that USNI members are academics, scholars, and historians. While they advocate for a strong national defense and believe in the enduring role of sea power to maintain it, they really get off on naval esoterica and arcana that only a tenured professor with a passion for all things naval could love. Hence this ad:

Time after time I find that the insights that drive an ad are those that happen because of the collaboration and hard work of the agency team.  My partner at JUMBOshrimp, Bryan Birch, once told me that he loves when there is disagreement over key insights.  It is in the spaces between those differences that Bryan says he often finds inspiration.

On Oscar night, we are often told about how the supporting pieces come together to create a great movie - lighting, music, editing, casting, costume and set design, etc.  In advertising the same is often true - an insight isn't fully brought to life until it's programmed, filmed, photographed or edited.

In the end, any good ad, like any good movie, contains an insight.  It may not be of the "Fuck me" variety.  In fact, it might be a simple, revealing fact well executed. But to assume that such ads are simply product claims or observations doesn't acknowledge where the work of advertising really takes place: in the pulsing and noodling amongst the team.
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